The rebirth of Anaheim, California: So much more than Disney’s backyard

Spending a large chunk of my childhood in Los Angeles, I have fond memories of Anaheim, California. And most kids who have been lucky enough to visit there do – because more than likely you’re going to be there for a day at Disneyland, the self-described “Happiest Place on Earth”; a claim that’s difficult to argue. If not for Disneyland itself, you might have similar memories from a baseball game at Anaheim Angels Stadium, or an Ice Hockey match featuring the Mighty Ducks; both of whom are Disney owned teams.

The pool area of the iconic Disneyland Hotel
The pool area of the iconic Disneyland Hotel

But, as I discovered on a recent trip back to the city, Anaheim is making leaps and bounds in situating itself as a destination that’s much more than just Disney’s backyard; transforming an area known as the “Downtown Anaheim” into one that reclaims some its history that had long been ignored amongst the Disney expansion, going on to feature some of the best food, drink and experiences of the region.

Established by a group of German families in 1857, Anaheim is the oldest and most populated city in Orange County; an area that also includes Huntington Beach, Santa Ana, Irvine and the iconic Laguna Beach. For almost 100 years, up until the arrival of Disneyland in 1955, the city had a diverse Downtown District that was at various times filled with booming businesses, breweries and factories – including that of the County’s namesake, packing oranges for Sunkist.

Pre-Prohibition Era Bar in Anaheim, displayed at the Anaheim Brewery
Pre-Prohibition Era Bar in Anaheim; image displayed at the Anaheim Brewery

Once Disneyland came in, the direction of Anaheim changed. For its new entertainment capital, it brought in jobs, tourists and money. But for areas like Downtown Anaheim, it proved to just about destroy the town. Disney came to rule the city in more ways than one, and ensured legislation was passed that would prioritise the viability of the park over anything else. One such legislation prohibited the Downtown area – located just north of the park, from building anything that could be seen from the park. So high-rises were out of the question, and as such, much of the planned infrastructure that would have otherwise been placed Downtown in its Business District ended up further and further from the heart of the city. By the mid-1970s, the area lay virtually unused and the city would spend much of the next 20 years demolishing the area and figuring out what to do with it.

Only two buildings from the old business district remain: the Kraemer Building, which was once operated by the American Savings Bank of Anaheim and was the first high-rise building in Orange County (it now sits in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places) and the Carnegie Library, which now houses part of a museum called Muzeo. They’re not the only buildings in the area that survived – we’ll get to some more of them in a moment – but what has been built around them has been as part of an almost ten year effort to revitalise the area – and now the fruits of their labour are finally blooming, once again making Downtown Anaheim a destination for locals and tourists alike.

One of the highlights of this rationalization is the Anaheim Packing House (440 S Anaheim Blvd), just around the corner from the business district. The impressively designed building – which was recently also added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places – was a Sunkist citrus-packing warehouse built in 1919. Sitting dormant for some 30 years, two years ago the building was turned into a food, drink and entertainment emporium filled with a menagerie of culinary wonders and delights.

anaheim4

Those in Sydney, Australia, you might compare it to the recently opened Tramsheds in Harold Park, while those in Asia might see it as a hawker centre on steroids. As we strolled through the building, we stumbled across hidden speakeasys and bars that were designed to look like the inside of a train carriage. We saw stages and event spaces, indoors and out, that are often filled with live music, especially on the weekends. We drank smoothies and browsed a wide variety of dining options – eventually settling on Georgia’s – which focused on Southern comfort cuisine.

anaheim8

Fried chicken with a buttermilk cornmeal crust and a side of mac n cheese and corn bread (you could choose two sides from a wide range), set us back US$10.95+tax and was divine. The only thing the meal was missing was a cold beer, and though we could have enjoyed one there, for this we headed across the park that sits outside the Packing House to the Anaheim Brewery (336 S Anaheim Blvd).

The Brewery is situated in another building which had survived the years; a 1924 car dealership that is now split between the Anaheim Brewery and a Umami burger joint – the latter of which will bring you over burgers while you drink at the former. The Brewery has a tasting room at the front that operates a bar, while German style tables sit out the front to encourage conversation between strangers.

anaheim5
That’s a paddlin’… The writer (right) with one of the Brewery’s owners, Greg Gerovac.

The history of the Anaheim Brewery itself is a unique one. Like so much of the Downtown Anaheim area, it’s a brand that has essentially enjoyed a revitalization of its own merit. Before Orange production began to flourish in the area in the second half of the 1800s, the region was well known for its grapes – and with the growing of grapes came a common byproduct: breweries. The local workers needed something to drink after all.

Of these, the Anaheim Brewery was one of them, which operated in various forms until 1920, disappearing into extinction when prohibition came in. It returned in this renewed space five years ago, with branding that was inspired by the original. Their 1888 brew is one of eight varieties they regularly produce, and is inspired by the steam lager that one of the breweries pumped out around the time, some three blocks from the current location. Their barley, meanwhile is sourced from the Pacific Northwest, except for their German style beers which come from that part of the world.

anaheim7
The tasting glasses at the Brewery recite an old Brewery advertisement “One for a Nickel, Two for a Dime, Get your Beer in Anaheim”. You’ll find stories behind all the labels on all of the beers, too.

The Anaheim Brewery, though stemmed in tradition, is very much a new craft beer for the city, and has helped add new life to the area, joining alongside the Packing House to give people from all over Orange County a reason to visit the area. Tasting some of the honey malt in their golden ale may be worth the trip alone.

Though things have really started picking up in the last few years, redevelopment began in 2007, when the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Centre (241 S Anaheim Blvd) opened up, utilising the historic Carnegie Library as one of its gallery spaces. The 1908 library building holds free exhibits including a permanent exhibition; a walk through the local history of Anaheim, maintained by the original Anaheim museum. It’s their only permanent exhibition. Others are often community driven, like a high school ceramics exhibition on while we were there.

Photo Credit: http://muzeo.org

The museum’s main building, meanwhile, holds ticketed exhibits. A woodworking exhibition was on while we were there, and among the anticipated upcoming exhibitions is a Downton Abbey costume exhibit which opens in February 2017. The whole 25,000 square foot complex was designed as a “new model for urban cultural centres”, and showed what you can do when you bring retail, loft living and the arts together as one.

Part of the exhibition that was on at Muzeo earlier this year
Osvaldo Orellana’s Stage Coach – Part of the Woodworking exhibition that was on at Muzeo earlier this year

As you keep walking through the Downtown district, you really start to see just how many new businesses have been popping up and flourishing in recent years. Their Farmers Market, which operates on historic Center Street (cnr Lemon) on Thursdays only adds to the vibrancy of the area.

anaheim6

There’s live music playing, and all the usual stalls you’d expect from a farmers market – with a focus on fresh local produce (and a couple of food trucks thrown in for good measure). The permanent store fronts that sit alongside the tents are filled with trendy coffee shops, bars, cafes and restaurants.

dsc_0059

The whole complex that runs along this strip of Center Street has been here for less than two years, and one of its newest residents is Pour Vida Latin Flavor (185 W Center Street Promenade) – which may have had the best tacos I’ve ever tasted. Sitting as a special of the day from the farmers market, their Salmon tacos, with squid ink flour tortilla, were absolute perfection.

anaheim10

Of course you had to enjoy a margarita with it, and some blue corn tortilla chips with guacamole. If you’re looking for other food options in the area, Little Arabia is not far away, with some great Middle Eastern food, and you can always head back to the Disney part of town. Downtown Disney – the shopping and entertainment strip that sits next to the two Disney parks, is full of many, tourist focused options.

As we were staying near the park at the Anabella Hotel (1030 W Katella Ave), we were recommended a visit to the nFuse Kitchen, which sits in the lobby of the Anaheim Marriott (700 Convention Way). The eclectic menu is of a high quality, with a focus on local ingredients. We start the meal with a look at an impressive list of spirits; I try a local scotch, the Baller Whiskey which is described as “a California take on the Japanese spin on Scotch whisky.” Indeed, the labelling strongly showcases its Japanese influence. But it’s made in Alameda, which is East of San Francisco. It’s not as refined a blend as the Japanese counterparts, but it’s damn fine all the same, and shows the sort of quality that California is capable of producing.

anaheim1

The ravioli, which was the special of the day, was mouth watering – and their steak (Brandt Farm’s Chophouse New York Steak) was cooked a perfect medium rare. A side of Lobster Mac n Cheese (one of their signature dishes) was similar perfection. Who knew one of the best dinners I’d have in America would be in a hotel lobby.

anaheim11

From wandering the vibrant and growing downtown district, to finding a perfect dinner back in the resort area, Anaheim delivered an incredible day outside of the typical tourist troupes, providing plenty for locals and tourists alike to enjoy when they make their way to the ever-evolving city.

Getting There:

Anaheim is an hour drive from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). If you are catching public transport, grab the LAX Shuttle to LA Union Station and then get the train to Anaheim. There are bus, taxi and Uber as options once you arrive at the train station. There are also direct shuttle options from LAX through a variety of operators. If you’re travelling to Los Angeles from Australia, Virgin Australia, Qantas, American Airlines, Delta and United all fly direct from the East Coast of Australia to LAX. Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand and Fiji Airways are among the operators that provide indirect services by way of their namesakes.

More Info:

The Dressing Downton exhibition opens at Muzeo on February 12th. For more details head to http://muzeo.org. To find out more about what’s happening in Anaheim, head to http://visitanaheim.org/.

The writer visited Anaheim as guests of Visit Anaheim. All photos by the author. While in Anaheim we stayed at The Anabella Hotel (1030 W Katella Ave). Photos by Debra Heath, unless credited otherwise.